Remembering Truckee River canyon’s past |

Remembering Truckee River canyon’s past

[Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part column on the once busy communities between Truckee and Verdi, Nev. The column is guest written by Tom Macaulay, who is Truckee’s senior historian and has studied Truckee’s history, especially the ice industry, for many years. The next installment will be published on Wednesday, April 14.]

The Truckee River canyon between Truckee, California, and Verdi, Nev., is an important link in America’s transcontinental routes. Before 1844 it was undiscovered by white settlers. In that year the Stevens-Murphy-Townsend party struggled through with their wagons. They were the only ones to do so because the steep walls and twisting course of the canyon were a nightmare for the exhausted party. In the spring of 1845 Old Caleb Greenwood, searched out a better route, which became known as the Dog Valley route, still in use today. It was used by all immigrant parties on the Truckee branch of the California Trail until 1868 when the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR), part of the Transcontinental Railway, made regular traffic through the Truckee River canyon commonplace.

For many years the Truckee canyon was a thriving, vibrant commercial area with small towns and communities all along the tracks of the CPRR. The railroad defined and dominated the canyon. It carried supplies and passengers in and carried out lumber, ice and paper. Gradually wagon roads and then motor roads, starting at opposite ends of the canyon in Truckee and Verdi, worked their way in. Finally, in 1926 the last stretch of the Victory Highway, later Highway 40, was completed between Floriston and the state line, and the entire canyon was open to private vehicles. In 1964 the last phase of freeway work on Interstate 80 was completed and the canyon assumed its present character.

Truckee and Verdi still flourish at the upper and lower ends of the canyon. All of the other towns, except Floriston, have disappeared, leaving only scattered ruins to mark their sites. Most of the names have disappeared from modern maps, and local residents who remember the names are unsure of the locations. For those who are interested in the history of the area, a journey down the canyon can still provide views of these forgotten sites that once meant so much.

Mileage mentioned in this article is in a railroad miles from Truckee, derived from late 1800s railroad time tables which give miles from Sacramento, not Truckee. They are accurate to the closest mile but cannot be compared to modern mileage. Highway or freeway miles are mentioned as such, and “modern” refers to sites developed since the road through the canyon was completed.

A trip down the Truckee River canyon

GLENSHIRE DRIVE: Modern. It follows Old Highway 40 from Truckee to the new subdivision of Glenshire, six highway miles from the Glenshire Drive turn off from Donner Pass Road near Truckee. It follows the CPRR and Truckee River and crosses the Glenshire Bridge over the CPRR and the Truckee River. A short distance beyond the bridge, Old 40 turns to the left, to the Flycaster’s Club. Down the canyon, below this point, the highway has been abandoned and farther down the canyon it has been overlaid by Interstate 80. Glenshire Drive is a new road turning right from Old 40. It continues through Glenshire subdivision to meet another short section of Old Highway 40, now called the Hirschdale Road, between Boca and Hirschdale.

HALF DAM is a local name for a site on the river about two miles below Truckee on Glenshire Drive. It is the site of a dam started for the Gem Ice Works in 1894 but never completed. It is not visible unless you know just where to look.

POLARIS is on the river three miles below Truckee First, called Proctor’s and Winsted by the CPRR, it was the site of Tahoe Ice Company after 1886. The name was changed to Polaris by the National Ice Company in 1901 and there was a post office from 1901 to 1923.

It was recently known to locals as “The Pink Palace” because the old headquarters building, later demolished, had been sheathed in pink asbestos shingles. The old ice pond, the best preserved in the canyon, is across the river from the highway and is easily visible from the extreme east end of the Olympic Heights subdivision. The modern sanitary district sewer plant is just downstream.

OLD BUG STATION: Modern. The old bug station is on the left side of the highway about one mile below Polaris. It was abandoned when the new station was built west of Truckee at the Donner interchange. The site was later used as the Forest Service Polaris campground.

On the right of the campground, across the railroad, is a large flat which was the terminus of the Sisson-Wallace flume which served Hawthorne’s mill, Samuel McFarland’s mill, and Richardson Brothers’ mill. Several bridges crossed the Truckee River here to provide access to CPRR side tracks and the Richardson Brothers Factory.

MARTIS CREEK is five miles below Truckee. Foot access via a difficult trail is from a parking area beyond the Glenshire Bridge. Martis Creek enters the Truckee River from the south, but up river from Glenshire Bridge. The mouth of the creek was the site of the Truckee Ice Company after 1885. The old ice dam is still visible above the mouth of the creek, as are old stone building foundations. The upper reaches of Martis Creek were lumbered by the Richardson Brothers, George Schaffer and the Truckee Lumber Company. The creek was also called Marty’s Creek.

FLYCASTER’S is below Martis Creek, six-plus miles below Truckee, on the Glenshire side of the river. It is private property, accessible by private road from Old 40. The land was purchased from the CPRR and the buildings were purchased in 1906 from Dr. Zimmer, who had a tuberculosis sanitarium there, by the San Francisco Flycaster’s Club. A road and bridge led across the Truckee River to Union Mills Station.

UNION MILLS is six miles below Truckee, a stop on the CPRR, across the Truckee River from Flycaster’s. The Union Mills lumber mill may have been located in Union Valley, the location of modern Glenshire subdivision. The name Union Mills has been freely used for several sites, and the true, correct site of the mill has not yet been accurately determined. Very recently, the exact location of the Union Mills Station Site of 1913 was located.

GLENSHIRE is a modern subdivision in Union Valley, McKay Spring, Buck Spring and possibly the site of Union Mills. Stewart McKay of Truckee developed springs, a sawmill, and three small ponds for ice harvests and fish raising. Fish were for commercial sale as well as for sport fishing.

PROSSER CREEK enters the Truckee canyon on the left, seven miles below Truckee. The mouth was the terminus of lumber flumes for mills on Sage Hen and Alder creeks, (Banner Mill, Parkhurst Flume, Nevada & California Lumber Co,, Lonkey & Smith Flume), and Martin & Sweeney shingle mill. The Summit Ice Company, later part of Sierra Lakes Ice Company and Union Ice Company, harvested ice one half mile above mouth and was connected to the CPRR by a rail siding.

The broken concrete dam still exists but floods have washed out the old side track. A store, lumber yard and telegraph office were at the mouth of the canyon.

Next Wednesday we will continue the trip down the canyon.

Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at The e-mail address is Leave a message at 582-0893.

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